Corporate Censorship Brought Us the America I Always Feared
When I was in Iran, the government there blocked Twitter, deciding for a whole nation what they cannot read. In America, Twitter purges users, deciding for a whole nation what they cannot read. It matters little whose hand is on the switch, government or corporate, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see.
Speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the right flowing from his notion of a Creator, understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something existing above government. And so the argument the First Amendment applies only to government and not to all public speaking (including private platforms like Twitter) is thus both true and irrelevant, and the latter is more important.
The government remains a real threat to free speech. But there is another threat now, corporate censorship. It is often dressed up with NewSpeak terms like deplatforming, restricting hate speech or fake news, or Terms of Service. This isn’t entirely new; corporations always did what they wanted with speech. Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, enshrined as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” The concept was core to a democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw ideas into the marketplace. An informed people would push bad ideas away with better ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.
For lack of a more precise starting point, the election of Donald Trump did away with near-universal agreement on defending the right to speak independent of content, driven by a false belief too much free speech helped Trump get elected. Large numbers of Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand censorship. They wanted universities to deplatform speakers they did not agree with, giggling over the fact the old-timey 1A didn’t apply and there was nothing “conservatives” could do about it all. But the most startling change came within the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who enshrined the “defend the right, not the content” in the 1970s when it stood up for the free speech rights of Nazis.
Not anymore. The ACLU now applies a test to the speech cases it will defend, weighing their impact on other issues (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the feelings of POC.) The ACLU in 2018 is siding with those who believe speech can be secondary to other political goals. Censorship has a place, says the ACLU, when it serves what they determine is a greater good.
So in 2018 when old tweets clash with millennial definitions of racism and sexism, companies fire employees. Under public pressure, Amazon removed “Nazi paraphernalia and other far-right junk” from its store. It was actually just some nasty Halloween gear and Confederate flag merch, but the issue is not the value of the products — that’s part of any free speech debate — it’s corporate censorship being used to stifle debate by literally in this case pulling things out of the marketplace. Alex Jones’ InfoWars was this week deplatformed off download sites where it has been available for years, including Apple, YouTube (owned by Google), Spotify, and Amazon. Huffington Post wondered why more platforms haven’t done away with Jones and his hate speech.
“Hate speech,” clearly not prohibited by the Supreme Court, is an umbrella term used by censorship advocates for basically anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “Communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.”
Twitter is perhaps the most infamous platform censoring its content. The site bans advertising from Russian media outlets. Twitter suspends those who promote (what it defines as) hate and violence, “shadow bans” others to limit their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It purges users and bans “hateful symbols.” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups calling on Twitter to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. Users can turn other users in for evaluation by Twitter for suspension. The point is always the same: to limit what ideas people can choose to be exposed to.
Part of the 2018 problem is the trust people place in “good companies” like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Anthropomorphizing them as Jeff, Zuck, and @jack is popular, along with a focus on their “values.” It seems to make sense, especially now when many of the people making decisions on corporate censorship are the same age and hold the same political views as those demanding they do it.
Of course people age, values shift, and what seems good to block today might change. But the main problem is companies exist to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means they will quash ideas when they conflict with profits. People who gleefully celebrate the fact @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the 1A and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.
Google has a slogan reading “do no evil.” Yet in China Google is deploying Dragonfly, a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course in China they don’t call it hate speech, they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn’t from Russian bots but from respected global media. In China Apple removes apps from its store on command of the government in return for market access. Amazon, who agreed to remove hateful merch from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed it is “unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world” using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with a future loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?
Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one’s business elsewhere. The 2018 problem is with platforms that are near-global monopolies. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post and can influence elections, is just another company that sells things is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Yeah, you can for now still go through hoops to download stuff outside the Apple store or Google Play, but those platforms more realistically control access to your device. Censored on Twitter? Try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance changed the nature of censorship so free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won’t post that person’s videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate; in 1776 you went to the town square. In 2018 it’s Twitter.
In the run up to the midterm elections, Senator Chris Murphy, ironically in a tweet, demanded social media censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” implying companies can act as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment. Murphy already knows the companies can censor. The debate for us is over what happens when they do.
A PERSONAL NOTE: I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell. This followed exchanges with mainstream journalists over their unwillingness to challenge government lies. Twitter sent an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read my words and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow it. They have eliminated everything I wrote there over seven years, all down the Memory Hole. That’s why censorship is wrong; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.